It's never quiet down south
September 16, 2010
Richie McCaw: The man meets his fans © Getty Images
The Tri-Nations drew to a close last weekend with the All Blacks triumphant, unbeaten and a long way ahead of the chasing pack. The battle for southern hemisphere supremacy usually throws up plenty of drama as well as the best rugby to be found on this 'ere rock, but even the most dyed-in-the-wool Springbok fan would have to admit that 2010 was a vintage year. There were several belting games and a handful of bona-fide classics all mixed in with the usual media outbursts and scandal and we've done our best to distil the biggest talking points to emerge from the tournament in our latest Scrum Seven.
There's life in the old dogs yet.
The All Blacks played some magnificent rugby on their way to the title but also showed granite-like determination when the chips were down. A great deal of credit must go to their old stagers, skipper Richie McCaw, lock Brad Thorn, fullback Mils Muliaina and hooker Keven Mealamu in particular. McCaw got away with murder on several occasions but remains the best there is, having added superb support play to his bulging repertoire. Muliaina was a man revitalised under the new tackle laws and in the early weeks of the tournament was unplayable. As for Thorn and Mealamu, the set-piece was solid and they spent the rest of their time either smashing anything that moved or pretending to be Dan Carter in midfield. Great stuff.
This young Wallabies side are a likable bunch and despite still being in the 'excitable puppy' phase there was always the sense that they had one big win in them. Ideally for them, that big win would have come against the All Blacks, but their Bloemfontein victory over South Africa will have to do for now. Having conspired to chuck away their second big lead in as many weeks the winning points eventually came from the boot of Waratahs fullback Kurtley Beale and his 55-metre penalty with the final kick of the game will be mentioned in the same breath as winning efforts from John Eales and Stirling Mortlock. It ended a 47-year wait for victory on the high-veldt - which incidentally is also the reported amount of time it will take for James O'Connor to look 25.
I probably shouldn't say this, but…
Every Peter De Villiers press conference must take a year off the life of South African Rugby Union boss Oregan Hoskins. Last season, the Springbok coach was a winning eccentric, this year, as his side floundered at the foot of the table, he was more often cast as a liability. His side were a shadow of the well-oiled machine that steamrolled all comers in 2009 and bar the Wallabies' inexperience could have lost all six of their fixtures. It doesn't help that extra ammunition is passed to the media week on week - when the papers have finished tearing apart a poor performance they should not be handed talk of refereeing conspiracies for dessert. Whether De Villiers survives his September review remains to be seen - Jake White might yet have his way.
"He's got some rare skills that kid."
He may not have played the biggest role in the All Blacks' triumph, but Graham Henry is bang on the money with his assessment of Israel Dagg's talent. He scored the winner at Soccer City as the All Blacks wrecked John Smit's big day out and while he got a dressing down for celebrating that score too early, his try against South Africa in round two should be treasured as a brilliant moment of impetuous youth. As should McCaw's shuddering hit on him as he celebrated. He was the only player to get close to him.
The Quade Train
A media storm in the finest tradition, Quade Cooper's 'Will he? Won't he?' dalliance with rugby league was another unwanted sideshow to the real business of winning Tests. But as the oft-covered song says, 'You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.' The threat of Cooper, who barely a year ago was considered to be a flighty presence on the periphery of the Wallabies squad, leaving for the 13-man-code was widely greeted with horror Down Under. It was also greeted with horror in the ESPNscrum office - after some early reservations we've been won over by his disdain for boring rugby. His performances against the Springboks on tour and his goose-step against the All Blacks last weekend were further evidence of what union could have lost. A special talent.
Time to call it a day?
John Smit is arguably the greatest captain in the history of the game, but that didn't spare him criticism this season as his ability to make it to next season's World Cup was called into question. After losing his 100th Test, against the All Blacks in Soweto in front of a record crowd, Smit cut a forlorn figure and will need all of his fighting spirit to keep going through until next September. Bismarck du Plessis is back playing for the Sharks and while the selectors don't appear to fancy him, Saracens' Schalk Brits would be playing for pretty much every other Test nation right now. Over to you John, for career challenge number 10,746…
Hail to the lawmakers
The new tackle laws have freed up the game immeasurably. While they apparently weren't welcomed in South Africa, both New Zealand and Australia cut loose to spectacular effect and showed that back-threes could a be used for more than tackling. The north will inevitably lumber after their southern rivals in November and only England and France appear to possess sufficient grunt to suck the life out of the Wallabies and All Blacks. England face a rematch with the Wallabies after beating them in June, it won't be as easy now, while it will be interesting to see how Wales fare with a little more freedom. The fact remains however that even after a dismal Tri-Nations campaign, the weakest southern hemisphere side should still win a Grand Slam this year. The gap is more like a chasm.